ORCA Marine Mammal Surveyor End of Season Survey Extravaganza 2023


Well it’s been another rotation around the sun and this year marks the 17th full year of ORCA Marine Mammal Surveyor data collection. This is an impressive milestone in terms of cetacean datasets and we could not have achieved it without our incredible network of volunteers.

In 2023 ORCA Marine Mammal Surveyors surveyed a spectacular 49,995 km and recorded an impressive 9,970 individual animals.

Ferry surveys

We were very excited to be back to a full complement of surveys this year and even more excited to be adding two brand new routes: Mallaig-Lochboisdale in the Hebrides and Newhaven-Dieppe in the English Channel. Surveys were carried out on a total 14 different ferry routes around the UK, crossing five different sea regions: English Channel, Celtic Sea, Minches and West Scotland, North Sea and Bay of Biscay.

Survey teams of three or four trained Marine Mammal Surveyors conducted a total of 98 surveys. The first survey took place on the Dover-Calais route on the 11th March 2023, and the final surveys took place on the 4th November 2023, on the Dover-Calais and Poole-Cherbourg routes. The Isles of Scilly route from Penzance-St Mary’s had the highest number of surveys conducted throughout the season, with a total of 14 surveys. This route also had the highest number of survey allocations, at 42 places allocated.

20,012 km of survey effort was conducted, yielding 898 sightings of 4,294 individual animals from 12 species. Impressive! The most commonly recorded species was the common dolphin, with 3,424 individual animals seen. Survey highlights include large groups of feeding porpoises in the Celtic Sea, and humpback whales in the Hebrides.

Harbour porpoises recorded by ORCA Marine Mammal Surveyors

A total of 356 survey places were allocated this year across all routes. Unfortunately 26 surveys were cancelled this year, primarily due to poor weather (there were numerous storms throughout the 2023 survey season causing sailing disruptions) or due to ships not sailing. Fortunately, 12 of these surveys could be rescheduled on alternative dates in the same month. A total of 125 survey places were declined or cancelled by surveyors. The route with the highest number of places declined or cancelled was Oban-Castlebay, with 19 surveyors declining or cancelling their survey places. The Plymouth-Roscoff route had the fewest cancellations and declined places, with only two surveyors cancelling or declining their survey place.

Saga cruises

Once again, this year teams of Marine Mammal Surveyors were offered places on board the Saga cruise ships, the Spirit of Discovery and the Spirit of Adventure. Teams of four Marine Mammal Surveyors were invited onboard 11 itineraries, collecting vital data on the cetaceans seen but also enhancing the guest experience through lectures, wildlife watches, workshops and generally being on hand to talk about any wildlife seen.

Forty-four Marine Mammal Surveyors took part in Saga trips in 2023 travelling to the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, Norway, the USA, Canada, Iceland and Greenland. They spent a total of 204 days at sea. Saga cruises this year yielded 29,943 km of survey effort and 1,086 sightings of 5,676 animals comprising 32 species. Much of this data was collected in data deficient offshore areas which highlights the conservation value of these cruises.

Common dolphins were the most frequently sighted species, with 2,347 individuals recorded.

The most infrequently sighted species was the North Atlantic right whale, with only one individual recorded. This is not surprising though, as this species is one of the world’s rarest and most endangered whales with only around 350 individuals remaining. Amazingly, this individual was one that could be identified by Fisheries and Oceans Canada using the images provided by the ORCA team onboard the Spirit of Discovery. The whale was identified as #4191, a 12 year old female who has not yet had any calves.

North Atlantic right whale female #4191, recorded by ORCA Marine Mammal Surveyors onboard the Spirit of Discovery’s Autumn Colours of New England itinerary

Team Leaders

None of our surveys could go ahead without our incredible Team Leaders who help to ensure the high quality of our data and pass on their knowledge to newer surveyors. There were 43 Team Leaders carrying out ORCA surveys this season, with 16 of those being signed off as new Team Leaders in 2023. There will be 12 Marine Mammal Surveyors starting their Team Leader training journeys in 2024. If you think you have what it takes, get in touch!

Thank you all for your hard work, enthusiasm and support in 2023. Have a great end of the year and here’s to an even better 2024!

The only way we can protect whales and dolphins is by understanding their distribution, and so monitoring is vital for effective conservation. Donate today to help ORCA continue to identify and study important whale hotspots around the world by visiting www.orca.org.uk/donate

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